Pete Carroll has been Mark Sanchez’s mentor, confidant and friend for the quarterback’s best times. Within the last two years, his worst times.
And even one of his oddest times.
Sanchez was absorbed in trying to finish off a 2009 Rose Bowl win as Carroll’s quarterback at USC. A brilliant New Year’s Day was ending with another idyllic sunset off Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. More than 92,000 people and a national-television audience were watching “the Granddaddy of them all.” The locals were roaring. The hometown Trojans were rolling over Penn State. Sanchez was on his way to throwing for 413 yards and four touchdowns while completing 80 percent of his passes, a record for the famed game.
Just as Sanchez was trying concentrate on the third-down play he was about to make following this timeout, Carroll went all mushy on him.
The Trojans’ coach told his quarterback to forget, for a moment, the next play. Look around the packed, colorful, pulsating Rose Bowl.
“This is everything we talked about when we recruited you, is it not?” Carroll told Sanchez on that sideline in Pasadena. “Is this awesome or what? Is this one of the coolest things ever?”
Sanchez was still laughing about it Wednesday, almost six years later — and four days before he quarterbacks the NFC East-leading Eagles (9-3) against Carroll’s surging Seahawks (8-4) in Philadelphia.
“I was in the middle of a drive, in the middle of a timeout. We’re trying to convert a third-down,” Sanchez said over the telephone from Pennsylvania. “I’m like, ‘Coach, we have to go! Man, what are you talking about? This guy is crazy!’
“But that’s Pete. I mean, that’s the way he is. He truly enjoys it. He wants you to be successful and he loves to teach you how to do it. It was just so much fun — that whole run — that I was a part of.”
That affection remains mutual, even though Sanchez left USC a year early to enter the NFL against Carroll’s advice. Even though Sanchez, reborn in a second pro life after the New York Jets discarded him, now stands in the way of Carroll’s rolling-again Seahawks.
“I love Mark,” Carroll said.
Carroll’s love dates to well before Sanchez won the Rose Bowl for him. Before Sanchez was Parade Magazine’s 2004 national player of the year from Mission Viejo High School in California. Carroll had known Sanchez’s family for years, including his father Nick Sr. and older brothers Nick and Brandon, who played football at Yale and DePauw.
Carroll gave Sanchez his first starting chance as a sophomore in the fall of 2007, when USC starter John David Booty was hurt for the games against Arizona, Notre Dame and Oregon. That Ducks team had a first-year offensive coordinator that had just arrived from the same job at the University of New Hampshire named Chip Kelly.
By 2008, Sanchez’s junior season, he was the Trojans’ starter. He — and USC — took off. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 3,207 and 34 touchdowns, with 37 total scores. USC finished 12-1 and No. 3 in the country.
But months after that Rose Bowl win, Sanchez spurned Carroll’s advice. He surprised USC and his own family. He decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft after just one — albeit fantastic — season plus three games as a college starting quarterback.
“There were never any hard feelings. He never wished me ill will or hope I’d play poorly. He just expressed his opinion,” Sanchez said. “I made up my mind and knew what I wanted to do and that was it. So it kind of took on a life of its own in the media. I took it as a form of respect, to be honest, because I love Coach Carroll. I always have and I always will.
“I think he’s one of the best — not just coaches, but people — I’ve been around. He’s more than just a coach. He’s a teacher. And I took that as a form of respect as him wanting me back on his team. That means the world to me because I had so much fun playing for him.”
Carroll said his love remains for the quarterback he is trying to beat this week.
“We just had a difference of opinion at the time, in that regard. I wasn’t going to hold him back,” Carroll said. “He was awesome with us, had a great career. Kind of grew up with us, was there even before he came to school. His family was close to the program. I was very, very close to the family during that time — and felt like I was representing an opinion that was coming out of the household, too, because they could see reasons why they wanted Mark to stay.
“The main thing was, he was really forthright and he was very determined to take on the challenge. … But that had nothing to do with our relationship or anything.
“It was an interesting time.”
So were the early months of 2013. After making Sanchez their starting quarterback as a rookie — he was something of a modern-day “Broadway Joe” Namath appearing on the cover of GQ, visiting the White House and leading the Jets to two consecutive AFC championship games — Sanchez had thrown 13 touchdowns against 18 interceptions as the Jets limped through a 6-10 season in 2012. New York dumped him and drafted Geno Smith as his replacement.
Sanchez spent all of last year on the bench behind Smith. He signed this past spring with Philadelphia as a forgotten free agent and backup to Nick Foles.
“We’ve stayed connected throughout all of that time,” Carroll said. “I thought it was really difficult. I thought they did a great job with him in his first couple years to protect him, and give him a chance to grow as a quarterback. They won enough games to go long into the playoffs. And then things change over the years.”
Carroll noted how it became “a very difficult situation for a QB with all of the media that went around it and being in New York as well.
“Mark hung through all of that. He was tough about it. He had a good mind about it.”
Sanchez is 3-1 starting for the Eagles. He has three 300-yard passing games, a completion rate of 63 percent, six touchdown throws and four interceptions since Foles hurt his shoulder Nov. 2 at Houston.
His former USC coach texted Sanchez after seeing him shine in an exhibition game for Philadelphia.
“Hey man, it’s so good to see you out there playing again and having fun and playing it the way that you know how,” Carroll’s text to Sanchez read. “Keep competing.”
In February, Sanchez had his family over to his house to watch Carroll’s Seahawks on television in the Super Bowl.
“I loved his press conference after the game and he said, ‘Any of our SC fans that have been to any our bowl games knew what was coming,’ ” Sanchez said Wednesday. “I remember in the first quarter, I looked at my dad when we were watching that game and said, ‘Dad, they’re going to blow the doors off of this game. They might rout them. It’s going to get ugly. … They’re too excited. They’re too energetic. They’re having too much fun. And they’re too prepared. They’re just going to go bananas.’
“That’s exactly what happened.”
Carroll’s Seahawks did go bananas, beating Denver 43-8 for Seattle’s first NFL title.
“It was so cool to watch that,” Sanchez said.
Now, 10 months later, he’s trying to beat Carroll and the Seahawks in one of the quarterback’s biggest games since the last AFC championship for the Jets in January 2011.
“It was great to see him get a new chance,” Carroll said. “I was really excited for him to get an opportunity to play with these guys because he fits and he looks very comfortable, like he can do good things and help his team.
“I love Mark. He’s always been a great kid and I’ll always be close to him, follow him, and cheer for him.”